Distributed Teams, Collective Success

By: Alex Marcy on March 31, 2015
Tagged: Education

Our team is distributed across the country. Our customers, the world.

Born in today's connected world, we made a decision early on to save ourselves the expense of a large office, and instead investing in our people.

During our last startup someone asked us how in the world we get anything done with our people working wherever they want. Not only do we get things done, we think our approach has some huge advantages, even easing our burden on our customers' bottom line.

Our philosophy is simple. Most of our time is spent on development/testing, not at a customer facility. This can be done anywhere there is electricity.

What about the other 16 hours in the day?

No one on our team works in a personal vaccuum. Family, spouses, volunteering, school, regional activities, and any number of other things all influence where someone's ideal living situation is physically located.

A Venn Diagram of everyone's personal influences, access to electricity, and our HQ in Chicago is skewed away from one of those constraints.

Not requiring our people to live in the same place has some amazing benefits. We are no longer limited to the best people, who want to live in Chicago, we are simply limited to the best people, period.

Travel, the Environment, Sanity

One of our customer's facilities is in Nevada. It makes more sense for everyone to send someone from California to their plant than someone from Florida. Cheaper transportation costs, less environmental impact, and they can go home on the weekend if they want.

Our line of work can be difficult and stressful at times. We have all worked at a company who amplifies those traits. Removing as much stress as possible keeps our people happier, more productive, and ready to tackle the next challenge.

Communication is Key

This whole idea would crumble without a solid communication infrastructure in place. We use a variety of tools to manage our projects, our people, and our training.

Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • Skype
  • Google Hangouts
  • Github
  • Basecamp, Trello, Internal project management tools
  • Insightly
  • P2 by Wordpress
  • Dropbox, Google Drive, Box
  • Heroku, Azure, Amazon Web Services
  • Internal Wikis

This workflow has given us and our customers a completely unexpected benefit. We can easily give our customers access to their projects in these systems. No more wondering where things stand, simply login and take a look or get an email anytime there is a status update.

Our customers can also be a part of the project process by leaving notes, asking questions, and doing reviews using the same tools we use in our workflow. This streamlines communications, leaving us to focus on the things that matter most to our customers without wasting any of their time.

Setting Expectations

The other tool we use on every project is to explicitly set and understand expectations on both sides of the table. If you are working with us you will know how we are going to approach your project, who will be working on it, the scope of work, what issues we expect to face, and the resources and information we expect from you. Spending this time up front saves a great deal of time during the life of the project and prevents many of the common headaches and pitfalls we have run into while employed by other companies in the past.

Wrapping Up

Our decision was simple. Most of our time is spent off-site doing development or support. We are typically on-site during the beginning and end of a project for meetings and commissioning. On-site is usually a plane ride away so why worry about all sitting in the same room all the time?

The short answer is, we don't. Instead we focus on taking care of our people, our customers, and our families. With a strong foundation the rest is easy.

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